The first time I met Michael K. Williams, I was almost too nervous to breathe.
The occasion was a tribute to The Wire at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, around the third season of the series. By this time, HBO’s drama had yet to achieve the degree of acclaim or interest from viewers that would later establish it as one of the most notable TV series of all time and a defining part of the series. most recent media of the golden age. Although creator and executive producer David Simon and most of the cast were in attendance, the large auditorium was less than half full.
But those of us in the audience knew we were in the presence of something remarkable. Early fans knew The Wire was more than just a crime drama about drug dealers and cops in today’s Baltimore. It was a kaleidoscopic depiction of a penetrating reality, the struggle of young black men and women in often overwhelming situations filled with complex and imperfect characters who anchor the drama in truth and authenticity.
Just being in the same room as the magnificent ensemble The Wires was electric, but my heart really jumped when I was invited to take the stage and chat with them at the end of the night. Even though the actors were approachable and polite, I needed to find the courage to speak to Williams, who died Monday at the age of 54. His take on the sinister and violent gangster Omar Little was so compelling that it was difficult at that point to separate the character from the artist.
With a cobra smile, a voice hard as gravel, and a menacing scar near his eye, Williams Little was street terror incarnate. Carrying a sawn-off shotgun and casually whistling A-Hunting We Will Go as he roamed the streets, Little was so deadly that children were shouting the warning Omar comin! at his approach, sending anyone within earshot, even outlaws, to run and hide in fear.
Williams’ portrayal of a gay antihero with a Robin Hood moral code has broken boundaries. And like any formidable antagonist, he possessed an infectious charisma Omar knew he was the king of the neighborhood, and his deadly anger made anyone who crossed his path shudder. He took pleasure in the terror it caused, but also had an innocent love for Honey Nut Cheerios (Honey Nut, yo!).
Words didn’t come easily when I finally had the courage to speak to Williams, but I was instantly disarmed and in awe of his understated grace and warmth. He was humbled by my praise for his work, and he couldn’t have been nicer or more respectful. It was the start of a relationship that always made me feel honored to be in his company.
When we had our first official interview at the Chateau Marmont several years later in 2010, his role as the ruthless businessman Chalky White on HBO Boardwalk Empire had been added to The Wire and many other projects to make him a force to be reckoned with. Williams was obviously delighted with the looks and waves of recognition from diners as he walked over to our table at the hotel’s outdoor restaurant.
He was just as kind as he had been when we first met. But during our conversation it became clear that he was still haunted by his early years as a struggling young actor trying to make his mark in music videos and TV spots. At one point, he remembered being so filled with despair that it felt, he said, that part of me was dead inside.
In a low voice, he said, I took a lot of pain medication, alcohol, on September 11. I ended up working at my mom’s daycare in Brooklyn. Personally, I was coming from a dark place when I read for Omar. And when I read it, I knew I could put that part of myself in that part.
He recalled those painful memories when he played White and other demanding roles: I Love My Characters. I play them with 100% honesty; there is no holdback. I understand where they come from.
But although The Wire put Williams on the path to stardom, he later admitted that the role of Omar brought him even more angst.
Says Williams: The darkness of the character weighed on my psyche so much that by the end of the series I was completely off balance (to face that darkness). I was harming myself in every possible way you can imagine.
And it wasn’t always about taking drugs; it was negative company, negative places. I had a dark mind, the bad decisions one after the other. But someone took care of me because I never stopped working.
When we met again in 2016, Williams seemed to be everywhere. He was co-starring as a prison broker on HBOs The Night Of a role that would earn him one of five Emmy nominations playing gay activist Ken Jones in the ABCs miniseries When We Rise, and producing and by organizing a project for Vice, Black Market With Michael K. Williams.
What really stood out during this interview which turned out to be our last conversation was how Williams really seemed to put his pain behind him. He was in a good mood, using his personal iPhone playlist of songs by Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra for a pre-interview photoshoot. Love it, he said of the catchy R&B flavored groove as he posed.
Finally settling down for lunch at the rooftop restaurant at the London West Hollywood Hotel, he beamed when I asked him how he was doing.
I am blessed, he said. I feel truly blessed today.
He displayed spiritual calm, explaining how he was trying to take better care of himself, aiming for a better Michael, a more secure and comfortable Michael. It’s close at hand.
As we parted, we hugged.
I have never ceased to be in awe of Michael’s incredible talent, magnetism and strength, both as an artist and as a person. Remembering our last embrace helps soothe my grief at his loss.
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